San Francisco History

San Francisco's Foreign Colonies:
No. 2 — Italian

By Robert H. Willson

In Trade, Art and Life Habits, the 60,000 Children of Sunny Italy in San Francisco Feel at Home.

It seems sometimes as if San Francisco were about half an Italian city. Grand opera comes along and the music loving population is much excited and interested. You join the throng in the lobby between the acts. If you cannot understand Italian you may expect to hear only about one fourth of the comment on the performance.

After the opera Polacco, Merola, Gigli, or Martinelli says, "Come, let us have a bite of supper." Then if you cannot speak Italian, eat Italian and think Italian, you are as far from home as a Hottentot in Rome.

There are only 50,000 or 60,000 Italians in San Francisco, but they are such an aggressive and progressive group of citizens that they have made an impression upon the life of the city itself.

Reading some of the much advertised names in the political campaign, a stranger might be excused for thinking the November election was taking place in Torino.

Visiting an art gallery for one of the exhibitions by San Francisco artists, you read the names of the painters and sculptors and suspect for a moment that you may awake and find yourself in old Firenze.

Ane one of these days we shall emerge from a mass of the imposing cathedral of St. Peter and Paul and expect to step into one of the gondolas of Venezzia.

Who Else Fishes?

Who caught the fish that you ate on Friday? Ah, it was an Italian fisherman, and he was as Italian as any who sails the bay of Naples. I asked an Italian fisherman down at fisherman's wharf how many of the fish for San Francisco were caught by his countrymen, and he replied:

"Who else fishes here?"

He spoke as if he might consider prosecuting them for poaching on Italian waters.

"If you have an evening to spare, and an appetite for a good dinner," said one of the old guard of San Francisco, who knows its byways, "come with me and I will introduce you to something as good as all that Columbus left behind him."

We went one evening down North Beach way and driving right by the famous restaurants stopped before an old residence on a side street that appeared quite uninteresting from without. Once on the inside, however, we were greeted with a cordiality that had no element of business in it.

It was an Italian boarding house, and two rooms were filled with long tables. The boarders were gathering for dinner. Knives and forks and tongues were clattering. The atmosphere was filled with good humor and the fragrance of soup. It is a boarding house for men. The woman who runs it boasts that no woman has ever dined there. It is for bachelors or men whose wives have gone to the country.

Such a dinner! Good food and good fellowship are the two great attractions which keep the house filled and an anxious waiting list. We met on this occasion two superior court judges who had found their way into the good graces of the landlady.

Not Clannish.

It is not, however, typical of the Italian population to be clannish. They assimilate perhaps more rapidly than any other nationality. Their newspapers, societies and institutions all work actively towards the end of acquiring American citizenship.

North Beach was once the Italian quarter, but more and more as they have been absorbed into the life of the city, they have abandoned the idea of an Italian district and spread out through the city until they have homes and own property in almost every part of it. Oh, well, as far as the Italians are concerned, a great many of them are simply American citizens who originated in Italy.

There are four Italian banks in the city. This fact only serves to illustrate further the same situation. One of these banks at least is among the largest and most powerful banking institutions in the State.

The Federation of Italian Socities is composed of delegates from seventy individual associations. The Dante Hospital is one of the finest institutions in the city. There are two boards of relief for the care of sick and unfortunate. There is an Italian women's club, and Italian free school.

The editor of an Italian paper who is particularly keen on matters of information concerning the Italian population of the city says he believes them to be, on the whole, one of the most properous nationalities represented here. While they hasten to accept American customs and institutions, they are slow to adopt the American idea of living up to, or a little beyond, their incomes. Whether they are struggling to make a living in new and strange environments, or have attained a degree of prosperity which rewards persistent effort in a free country, they all have the fixed principle of laying aside something for the future. They are not nomads. One of their first ambitions is to acquire some property. The Italians are not gamblers. They have no expectation of getting rich quick, and are well satisfied with wages, salary or the legitimate profits of business enterprise.

Supply Produce.

It would doubtless be quite impressive to know how much of San Francisco's food is supplied by the Italian population. We may as well let it go at the fisherman's estimate that it is all of the fish. A considerable Italian agricultural population ship their produce to Italian commission merchants. Italian names are more conspicuous along produce row than any others. California fruit has become almost an Italian commodity. Pasta, macaroni, spaghetti, tagliarini, vermicelli, and all other varieties—where do they come from? Italian factories.

The Italians have their own chamber of commerce. They have tried to get at some idea of imports. This is practically impossible for the reason that but a small percentage of Italian goods pays customs duties in this port. Large quantities are received at New York or other ports, and shipped through commission merchants and wholesalers. Italian olive oil is produced. Italy once made wine and shipped it to California and bought wine in California and shipped it to Italy. The passing of wine has made many changes, but little difference in the volume of business transacted here by Italians.

Roaming about among the Romans one is apt to ask himself the questions, "Where are the worried Italians?" There are none. That is one of the happy characteristics of the race, an inherent buoyancy of spirit seems to make light of hardships or adversity. Italian mothers do not worry much about their children, but their children are happy and healthy. Italian business men do not worry much about business, and have more energy for work which in turn brings its results. There is poverty in Italy, where opportunities are limited, but in America, where there is opportunity, there is little Italian poverty.

The Italians generally refuse to worry even about the Eighteenth amendment. The redeeming clause of the act seems to have been inserted especially in their behalf. A family is permitted to make 200 gallons of wine annually for its own use: that is not so bad, they say. You had only to pass through the Latin quarter at any time during September or October to see how generally this concession to a racial habit was appreciated. The great crusher and wine press flaunted their industry openly on the sidewalks. They moved into one basement today and in at the next door or across the street tomorrow. Truck loads of fruit boxes followed the trail. Thousands of gallons of wine are now in the process of making legally in San Francisco. The law says that it must not be moved or sold, and those who have it are willing to abide by the decree.

The rule naturally has its disadvantages. Wine was made better and cheaper in large quantities. A man who could not afford to take time from his own business to make wine, could purchase his supply, but withal many an Italian family worked cheerfully in the late hours of the night and the early hours of the morning to take advantage of the opportunity that was left.

There is now a strong ambition in the Italian colony to make its mark in a new field. Two athletic clubs are training consistently with the hope of carrying off the biggest trophies offered in sports of the track and field. Their atheletes are already known in California as promising contenders for the highest honors.

There's a sporting event that takes place on pleasant Sunday mornings out near the Pillar of Progress on the Marina—gioco del formaggio. It has mystified many a stranger and gladdened the heart of many a newly arrived Italian.

It is the ancient and honorable game of "rolling cheese." They say it is played nowhere outside of Italy except in San Francisco.

The cheeses are imported from Italy. They are built much like the wheel of a freight car and weigh but little less. It's a game for a blacksmith or discus thrower and not for a golfer.

A thong is looped around the forearm of the player and its length is sufficient to wind several times around the cheese. The operation of rolling is accomplished very much as the small boy spins his top, only that a great deal of strength is required in addition to skill.

The cheese is so hard that it will stand up through a number of games and still be edible when the rind is pared off. It may not be as speedy as the well known limburger, but it has much greater endurance.

Leading Race.

If it is true that the Italian race leads all others in numbers in the city of San Francisco, it is more noticeable in other counties that they have a large lead over the nationalities represented. The figures for the State of California in round numbers are as follows:

Los Angeles, 18,000; San Joaquin, 15,000; Alameda, 10,000; Sacramento, 10,000; Santa Clara, 10,000; Fresno, 5,000; Sonoma, 5,000; Napa, 4,000; Humboldt, 3,500; San Diego, 3,500; Contra Costa, 3,000; Santa Barbara, 3,000; Tulare, 2,500; San Mateo, 2,000; Amador, 1,000; Marin, 1,000; Mendocino, 1,000; Merced, 1,000.

These are the counties with a population of over 1,000 Italians.

It is naturally the most Italian State in the Union. The Italian immediately takes hold here as nowhere else outside his own country. He finds the climate and the soil, the sunshine and the sea, the vineyards and the fishing grounds, to which he and his father have become accustomed through many generations.

You have only witness a Columbus Day celebration in San Francisco to realize that this is regarded as virtually a new Italy. Columbus was an Italian. Italy made one mistake in not financing his expedition which resulted in the discovery of a new continent, but the Italian people have made no similar mistake since. They have followed up his voyage of discovery until their footing in the new world is as strong, probably, as that of any other nationality.

"This," said the Italian Consul, looking out from his offices, through the vista between Russian and Telegraph hills across the bay, "is to us an Italian city. It is like Genoa, Livorna, Naples and those cities which view the Mediterranean. San Francisco has the best of the Italian population that has migrated. Those of less money, less education and less ambition may have stopped when they reached the eastern coast, but it is the aim of the Italian who leaves his native land to reach California eventually. The Italian fishermen, the vineyardist and the fruit grower especially are at home here. Those who live in the cities find little difficulty because the Italian is industrious and energetic and needs only the opportunity offered by the wonderful resources of this new country."

The present restriction of immigration is keeping thousands of Italians out of California. A large percentage of those seeking admission to the United States want to come here. A number of prominent Italian-American citizens regard the regulation as beneficial. It gives the great number of Italians alraedy here a chance to catch up and fall in step with American institutions and ideas. If there were more Italians they would have a tendency to colonize and the individuals would progress less rapidly.

The Italian population does not depend for its increase entirely upon immigration. The birth rate in San Francisco is high. Year by year the number of native sons and daughters of Italian parentage increases in California. This fact, however, does not constitute a problem, because in the second or third generation the Italian Americans begin to dissolve into that great mass of American citizenship which is made up from many sources.

Home Builders.

An Italian banker says the Italian race will  gain a rapid foothold in the United States because of the natural integrity of its people. An Italian settler does not have to wait long to acquire a home and property. As soon as he has a position or a business he can borrow money of the bank to buy a home. The mortgage comes first to the mind of the Italian borrower, and he rarely fails to pay it off. It requires less of value to secure a loan to an Italian than in the case of many other nationalities.

There are more than 100 Italian societies in San Francisco. Some of them are lodges in the well-known fraternal orders, and others are small social organizations. For pleasure and entertainment the great majority of Italians are given to depending largely on their work, their homes, and a few congenial neighbors. Music and the cinema are their favorite diversions.

Few peoples today are more persistent in their tendencies than the Italians. They had no thought of going away when the big fire wiped out many of their homes, and were among the first to begin the rebuilding of the city. A very large percentage of the Italian population in California are taxpayers.

It was predicted when the national prohibition law went into effect that because so many Italians were engaged in the production of wine there would be a considerable exodus from the State, but this failed to take place. For one thing prohibition has not yet become entirely effective. Also the expectation that the fruit of the vineyard would lose its value worked out quite the reverse. There is more than a suspicion that larger profits have been passing through certain channels of Italian activity. But if the Italian colony has been slow to accept the mandates of the Volstead act, they had only to look to patriotic and influential American neighbors for their example.

The Italian colony has undoubtedly fixed itself quite definitely so far as the geography of San Francisco is concerned. Appropriately its main artery is named Columbus avenue. At one end of this thoroughfare are the banks, the newspaper offices, the big Italian cafes, and the steamship agencies. At the other end is fisherman's wharf where a whole fleet of trollers and a maze of nets are tended and mended daily by the Italian fishermen. If you walk a mile from one end to the other you will encounter hardly a place of business that is not distinctively Italian. Verdi is enshrined in Golden Gate Park. Italians sit in council at the City Hall. Elsewhere outside of Italy there may be greater numbers of Italians but nowhere to an Italian is there a city more like home than San Francisco.

Source: San Francisco Examiner. 25 November 1923. K3. Pictures not included: Fishermen's Wharf, Colma Italians, Battery Street Italians, Broadway Street, and Washington Square.

Return to San Francisco Genealogy
Public Commons License